July 21, 2016

Why new grandparents should get the pertussis vaccine

New grandbaby on the way? The inclination to spoil grandchildren from day one may very well be woven into the "Grandparent DNA."

But what if the newest addition to your family needs something from you that's much more important than that giant stuffed teddy bear you bought, or even a pony? New babies are particularly vulnerable to whooping cough, an easily spread lung infection known for uncontrollable, violent coughing. And whooping cough, also known as pertussis, can be deadly.

Grandparents can play a key role in helping to protect their grandchildren from getting whooping cough by making sure they themselves are up to date with the pertussis vaccine. If you have a grandchild on the way, or if you spend a lot of time with your young grandchildren, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly recommends getting a booster of the vaccine that protects against pertussis.

Didn't I already get the pertussis vaccine as a kid?

Most adults have received the vaccine as children to protect against pertussis. But the immunity fades with time, so adults should receive a booster called "Tdap," which also includes protection against tetanus and diphtheria. Why is getting the Tdap booster important for people who spend a lot of time around young children, such as parents, grandparents and daycare workers? Infants 6 months and younger are the children most likely to die from this disease, according to the CDC. Infants are also more likely to suffer from neurologic complications from whooping cough, such as seizures and a type of damage to the brain called encephalopathy, probably due to the reduction of oxygen supply to the brain. Babies with whooping cough may also develop pneumonia. Less serious complications include ear infection, loss of appetite and dehydration.

"Whooping cough is awful for everybody who gets it, at any age, but it's definitely the babies that are the most at risk and the group that can potentially die from it," Dr. Mark Juckett says.

And by protecting your grandchildren by getting the Tdap booster, you'll also be protecting yourself, Juckett added.

"Around the age when people become grandparents, that also tends to be an age when they have other medical problems — whether that's emphysema or heart disease, or you're taking medications for psoriasis that can suppress the immune system," Juckett says. "So this is an age when you could also get very, very sick from pertussis. That's another reason why it's particularly important for older adults to get the Tdap booster"

Whooping cough vaccination and pregnancy

It's also important for pregnant women to be vaccinated against pertussis, which is normally covered during prenatal care visits, ideally between weeks 27 and 36 of pregnancy. Getting ready for baby also means that the pregnant woman's spouse or partner should get vaccinated as well as the baby's siblings, since babies are most likely to catch whooping cough from someone at home.

Newborn babies can't get the whooping cough vaccine at birth because studies show that a newborn's immune system isn't able to create antibodies until the baby is 2 months old.

"This leaves babies unprotected in the first few months of life when they are at the highest risk for catching whooping cough," Dr. Juckett says. "This is why it's so important for everyone who is around newborns to make sure they are up to date with the pertussis vaccine."

Which brings us back to grandparents. Before you cuddle with the new bundle of joy, make sure you've received your Tdap booster, ideally at least two weeks before visiting the baby. The booster may not be covered by Medicare, and out-of-pocket costs may range from $40-75. Check with your physician's office or pharmacy for exact costs, and with your health insurance provider regarding coverage for the booster.

Who should be vaccinated against pertussis?

  • Any person age 19 and older who has not had a vaccine containing pertussis after age 19

  • Pregnant women (preferably between weeks 27 and 36)

  • Adults who are around babies and young children (e.g., grandparents and other family members, childcare workers)